Regional Meeting - 2021
South Asian travel trade banking on regional tourism
The coronavirus pandemic has decimated the travel industry in most parts of the world and professionals in the tourist trade in South Asia are hoping regional and domestic tourism will save the day.
The situation is particularly perilous in countries such as Bangladesh, where tourism is not considered a high foreign exchange earner.
Chief Executive and Founder of Journey Plus, Taufiq Rahman of Bangladesh, says the tourism industry in the region is seriously looking at short-haul, domestic and cross-border tourism as the industry faces the fact that long-haul tourism will take at least two more years to pick up.
Rahman, who is also the Secretary General of Pacific Area Travel Association (PATA), Bangladesh Chapter was one of the panelists of the webinar discussion on ‘Tourism for Global Recovery – A South Asian Perspective.’ He was joined on the panel held on May 25, moderated by FNF Country Representative in Bangladesh, Dr. Najmul Hussain, by Frank Muller-Rosentritt, Member of Parliament of the German Federal Parliament (Budestag) and Dr. Maryam Shakeela, a former Cabinet Minister and CEO of SIMDI Group, Maldives.
As Rahman points out, in his own country, the pandemic months have seen domestic tourism pick up. Cox’s Bazar, for instance known to be the longest sea beach in the world, has seen such an influx of local tourists, that accommodation has become an issue. Even though cross-border travel between Bangladesh and India must be put on hold while the latter deals with the pandemic, he points out that other neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan could launch a joint marketing campaign to promote the idea.
While applauding the plan, Dr. Maryam Shakeela cautions that if regional and cross-border tourism is to flourish, it would be necessary to ensure that political differences and alignments do not get in the way.
“Politicians and their egos, vested interests, where one leader refuses to acknowledge a sound plan adopted by a leader of another country, would only put paid to such plans. But, if such a plan is to be put in place, regionally, everyone must hold hands, and implement a consistent programme, either through policy or digitalisation, to create the safety bubble.’
The tourism industry in the two countries, Maldives and Bangladesh are at two ends of the scale. Where tourism is the mainstay of the Maldives, in Bangladesh it figures low on the list of economic priorities. Says Rahman, the government has ploughed in a stimulus package to safeguard the readymade garment industry, a major foreign exchange earner, though the situation is different for tourism.
In such a scenario, where larger players in the tourism industry have had some safety, it is the tour operators, travel agents and others employed in secondary, non-formal roles who have been negatively impacted. Rahman counts 27 years as a tour operator. But, the pandemic has forced him and others like him to seek alternate sources of employment.
Many of those who are part of the informal sector of the tourism industry are now engaged in selling tea and spices and even working in fish and meat markets to make ends meet, he states. In most South Asian countries, where government sponsored social security safeguards are available, if any, only for low income categories, the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on employment has thrown to light the precarious situation of middle and upper middle income earners.
On the other hand, the Maldives seems to have handled the situation more successfully, with the administration stepping in to keep the industry afloat, even though some measures may result in financial losses for the government in the short term, says Shakeela.
But it has put in place a recovery package with a long-term view. On the heels of the onset of the pandemic, the Maldivian government introduced a relief package which ranged from lowering the cost of fuel and utility rates, price control on food staples, a moratorium on payments for selected businesses, deferred house rent payment, and special financing facilities to small and medium enterprises. It has also reallocated public spending by increasing funding for emergency preparedness and health. Acquisition costs had been reduced for resorts, even though it meant a loss of revenue for the government.
Such relief packages which had initially been introduced from April to June 2020 had been extended up to October and later until December that year. As of March 2021, the government had disbursed up to US $ 20.7 million, Shakeela added. Additionally, those who lost employment or ended up with a lower income became recipients of a monthly allowance of US$ 324, through the Income Support Scheme. A total of US$ 162 million had been dispersed as loans to businesses on condition that their staff was not retrenched.
Not only has the government made heavy financial investment to protect its main income generating industry, it has also launched several other programmes to attract visitors.
One such is the Maldives Border Miles project, a three-tiered, loyalty programme that came into being in September 2020, where the Ministry of Tourism, Maldivian Airport and Maldivian Immigration had worked together on a marketing campaign. Tourists were also encouraged to obtain insurance packages prior to a visit, to cover expenses if tested Covid positive or to meet expenses if exposed to someone with the illness.
Direct flights from countries in the region and customised packages have also played a big part in bringing in the visitors. Its ‘Re-imagine Tourism’ programme, designed with the help of the UNDP and the UNTWO, involved the creation of a sustainable tourism model, and has now been adopted by other businesses as well.
Another strategy has been the ‘dozen must do experience.’
Additionally, the tourism industry was encouraged to higher two local interns for every foreign intern hired. What’s more, the “I am vaccinated’ campaign and the Safe Travels Stamp awarded by the World Travel and Tourism Council in September 2020 has boosted tourist confidence.
The gamble seems to have worked.
Records indicate that in the first two months of 2021, the Maldives had welcomed 147,744 tourists. Its market has shifted too. Shakeela says where earlier 32percent of their visitors had been from Europe, since the onset of the pandemic, the country has seen an increase of East European, Russian, and Indian tourists.
The year 2022 will mark the country’s Golden Year in Tourism, and Maldives estimates indicate that 1.5 million tourists are expected this year.
Where millions of tourist related jobs have been at risk, with the South Asian region alone seeing 10 million job losses, Muller-Rosentritt explained that the pandemic has thrown up a new challenge; finding suitable workers, as most have moved away to other forms of employment.
Looking at the global recovery of the tourism trade, Muller-Rosentritt called for a “common, transparent model that will standardise entry and quarantine requirements between Europe and South, and Southeast Asia, which would in turn ensure citizens of host countries are protected. It is important that PCR testing is carried out by recognized agencies according to a standardised format. It would also enable consumer trust.”
Muller-Rosentritt spoke about the Common Trust Network, set up by the World Economic Forum. It is a scheme that will streamline the process, ensuring that test results and vaccination records are obtained only through verifiable and trusted sources and pave the way for hassle free travel, and make the duties of government officials and travel agencies easier.
He also expressed his satisfaction on Europe’s global distribution of vaccines, stating that 113 million doses have been dispersed to 43 countries.
Echoing Rahman’s claims, Muller-Rosentritt stated that in Germany too, domestic tourism has increased in the pandemic years.
As he puts it, tourism is an extension of a country’s diplomacy playing a crucial role in cultural and economic interventions.
Indeed, it appears that the Maldives action plan has saved its tourism industry, the mainstay of its economy. It might augur well for other nations to follow their lead, not only in the field of tourism but other businesses as well, if the pandemic related losses are to be mitigated. (Colombo, May 29, 2021)